Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ASF: "Sherlock Holmes"

It's not often that stage scenery gets applause these days, but James Wolk's stunning sets for the Alabama Shakepeare Festival's production of Sherlock Holmes did just that on opening night virtually every time the massive revolving Festival stage revealed yet another superbly detailed location. These, and Paula Scofield's gorgeous period costumes, transported the audience back to late-Victorian England for 2 3/4 hours that ended with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes -- an uber-sleuth whose powers of deduction set the standard for other fictional detectives -- put lesser humans to shame from his 1887 appearance in "A Study in Scarlet" through a series of novels and short stories till 1927. But, how does he do it? His mantra, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth", was first expressed in "The Sign of Four" (1890); and his mastery of deductive reasoning has been variously portrayed by stage and film actors from Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch.

And now at ASF, Brik Berkes takes on the role in director Geoffrey Sherman's adaptation of American actor-manager-playwright William Gillette's version of Conan Doyle's character. Gillette called his play Sherlock Holmes, or the Strange Case of Miss Faulkner (1899), and introduced theatre-goers to Holmes's deerstalker hat and calabash pipe; and he wanted to bring in a romantic element to a character hitherto a confirmed bachelor.

Gillette and Sherman keep Holmes off-stage for a long time, preparing the audience for his arrival with numerous references to his abilities; so from Mr. Berkes's first entrance on, we are treated to the familiar as well as some new facets of his character. Always assured to the point of arrogance, it is no surprise that Mr. Berkes's Holmes emerges victorious in thwarting arch-enemy Professor Moriarty [Rodney Clark plays the title character's nemesis to crusty perfection] and his underworld organization of criminals. But, his growing interest in Alice Faulkner [Alice Sherman], who is planning to avenge her sister's murder by withholding incriminating letters, adds another level to a man unused to romantic feelings.

Miss Faulkner is being held under duress by James and Madge Larrabee [John Manfredi and Jennifer Barnhart are both duplicitous to the core], who are also in cahoots with con-man safe-cracker Sidney Prince [Seth Andrew Bridges plays him with an irresistibly charming East End swagger that provides much of this production's comic relief].

As the plots intertwine, and with delightfully understated performances by Paul Hebron as Holmes's invaluable assistant, Dr. Watson, and James Bowen as a "sometime servant" John Forman, Holmes second-guesses everyone except Miss Faulkner who ultimately in Ms. Sherman's gentle yet firm depiction enables Holmes to admit his feelings towards her.

Supporting roles are handled by an assortment of returning and local actors: former ASF acting-intern Jason Martin returns to play three roles here; and Liam South, a fifth-grader veteran of A Christmas Carol and Peter Pan at ASF, plays errand boy Billy with confidence and maturity.

Making their ASF main stage debuts: Adrian Lee Borden gives French maid Therese a vigorous persona; Scott Bowman plays a tough hoodlum Jim Craigin and returns in an almost unrecognizable disguise as an officious Count Von Stalburg; and Sam Wootten appears first as Bassick, one of Moriarty's nasty henchmen, returning in a delightfully contrasting role as Parsons, a nebbishy butler.

There were a few technical problems on opening night, and the play itself creaks here and there with turn of the century plot devices, but the performances and the production values mentioned above engage us from beginning to end, resulting in a fine evening's entertainment.